Schrödinger. Life and Thought

This classic book on the life and thoughts of Erwin Schödinger was originally published in 1989 and is now reprinted in the Canto Classics series in 2015. Moore had access to the family papers and the intimate diaries of Schrödinger, so that he could produce this fundamental and extensive biography. For the impatient reader an abridged version A Life of Erwin Schrödinger was published in 1994. Moore however is not an historian, which has been a reason for critique, but I think it is a very honest and detailed biography. When it comes to conclusions about certain connections and attitudes in the psychology of Schrödinger, there might be some statements that are not sufficiently motivated, but this is usually formulated with the necessary reservations.

As a full biography should, it gives a survey of the life and the work of the man. Most readers will know Schrödinger from the Schrödinger wave equation, the PDE describing how the quantum state evolves in time. It was conceived by Schrödinger during the Christmas holidays of 1925 and published in a set of papers in 1926 which resulted in his Nobel Prize in 1933 (together with Paul Dirac) for their contributions to atomic theory.

Of course we read about the development of Schrödinger's career that is readily available at several places on the Web. A summary: He is born in Vienna (12/8/1887) as an only child. He studied at the local university and got his Habilitation in 1914, just before he had to join the army in World War I. The military duties were light since he could produce a couple of papers during the war. After positions in Jena and Stuttgart, he became full professor in Breslau in 1921 and then he moved to Zürich, but not for long since he succeeded Max Planck in Berlin in 1927. Because the political climate became tense in Berlin, he moved to Oxford in 1934, and later refused a position in Princeton but accepted an offer from Graz back in Austria. The Anschluss in 1938 drove him away again and he ended up in the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS) as director of the School for Theoretical Physics (1940) and stayed there for the next 17 years. He eventually returned to Vienna and died there of tuberculosis on 4/1/1961.

Of course all this you will learn from this biography in much more detail. By whom and how he was nominated for a position, the political situation in the different countries during and after the wars and much more. Not only Schrödinger's biography, but also some biographies of his collaborators, teachers, colleagues, acquaintances, and mistresses. Of the latter there were many. His first love was Felicie Krauss, the daughter of friends of the family. However for several reasons, Felicie's mother could prevent a formal engagement. The main reason probably being that Schödinger was an atheist (although nominally a Protestant). Several years later, he married Annemarie Bertel in 1920. They never had children together. They had what can be called an open marriage. Schrödinger had many affairs, and his wife never seemed to bother or perhaps she eventually was reconciled with the situation. He was very open about it. For example when he moved to Dublin, he took residence with his wife and Hilde March, the wife of a colleague who was pregnant of his child to live in a menage a trois. It is also suggested that he did not take up the position in Princeton because his lifestyle was not appreciated there, but that is not so certain. Many details of his love life are known since in his diaries he kept track of them. Another example is Ithy Junger, whom he tutored together with her twin sister when they were 14, became 3 years later one of his lovers. And there were many more. Later in life, while in Dublin, he had two more daughters with two different women. In his defense, Moore explains that in those days, mistresses were quite common and generally accepted in Vienna, Berlin and even in Zürich. The erotic caricatures by George Grosz were not totally unrealistic in Berlin of the 1920's.

Besides his love affairs, Schrödinger was also very unconventional in other aspects. He used to appear often in a Tiroler outfit. He must have shocked Paul Dirac when at the group picture of the fifth Solvay meeting in Brussels in 1927 everybody appeared in black attire except Schrödinger. This is testified by the group picture where he can be spotted on the last row with a light sports jacket amongst the group of participants in black. This kind or revolutionary sartorial attitude is something he had in common with his good friend Einstein.

His scientific work is also discussed in this biography. Practically all his papers are reviewed, with of course a special attention paid to the papers that were published about the wave equation. It might have been a good idea to include a list of all his publications. I do not know why Moore didn't but the list is missing. Anyway, even though the contents of the papers is discussed, it will be hard to follow the details, unless you are already somewhat familiar with the material. On the other hand if you are not interested in the physical theories and equations, you can skip large parts and it will not really harm the flow of the story told.

The Schrödinger cat is another generally known item connected to his name. That topic appears appears in his 1935 paper in Naturwissenschaften. It is related to the famous EPR (Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen) paper in which the authors show that the wave function does not describe the reality completely, because otherwise it would imply that information is transmitted faster than light and this exposes a contradiction in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Schrödinger illustrates his argument by a though experiment of a cat in a box that can be dead or alive, depending on an unobservable random event. The superposition of the dead-and-alive states of the cat prevails until the box is opened and a collapsed state of the cat being either dead or alive is observed.

Another less known aspect of Schrödinger is his involvement in Vedanta philosophy. In the postwar period after WW I in Zürich he studied intensely the European and Eastern philosophers. His philosophy was in the line of Kant and Schopenhauer. He later wrote several essays and lectured on the subject. In 1925 he wrote the first part of Meine Weltansicht (My World View), a summary of his personal philosophy, just before his main papers were to appear in the next year. Later in 1960, the year before his death, he added five more chapters. His opinion is rather pessimistic concerning the consequences of the Enlightenment. He finds comfort in Buddhist wisdom which does not accept the binary vision of the West. Something can be A or not A but can also be simultaneously A and not A. His exposition culminates where he explains his vision of the unity of the mind, each individual is part of the universe. The chapters he added later are less of an essay, but more loose notes closing up his philosophical view. His philosophical views may be related to his views on quantum mechanics and his attempts to find a unified field theory later in life. But without further proof, this is just speculation.

Also his book What is Life (1944) might have been another aspect of his intellect that has been inspired by his philosophy. In that book he looks at genetics from a physics point of view. This book was fundamental for the discovery of DNA in 1953. In 1958 he published a less influential sequel Mind and Matter. Of a completely different nature are his poems which he published in 1949. Moore's book contains many of his love poems. These poems may have been technically correct, but they lack the necessary virtuosity of a true poet.

And there are so many more aspects to be found in this massive biography, stuffed with many photos and quotations and excerpts from letters or writings by Schrödinger or others. This review can hardly do justice to the brilliant mind of Schrödinger and to the abundance of information on the man provided by Moore. A marvelous read, and it is still the most complete biography available today on the man, his life and thought.

Adhemar Bultheel
Book details

This is a reprint of Moore's extensive biography of Erin Schrödinger from 1989. Schrödinger, Nobel Prize physics 1933, is best known for his wave equation and for the paradox of the Schrödinger cat. There are however many other aspects of this unconventional personality, that are all described and abundantly documented in this book.

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9781107569911 (pbk)